Welcome to the “Democratic Republic” of the Congo, called the world’s least developed country in the United Nations. (Eat your heart out, Afghanistan.) Elections here are a joke, and not a funny one. The most recent presidential and parliamentary vote is currently being counted, but early reports sound familiar: The incumbent president is accused of rigging the vote and intimidating the opposition; an opposition leader claims an early victory without evidence; deaths are reported on all sides of the political divide; and even the UN, despairing, left the management of the election to an ally of the current president.
Even worse? The ballots have too many names on them, making the ballot cards themselves too bulky to fit through the slot of the plastic tub meant to collect votes. 15,000 people are running for Parliament, eleven for president.
That was the story from central Africa during this week’s Congolese elections. The vote, scheduled to begin and end on one day, had to be extended because many polling stations, deep in the bush, were late in receiving ballot cards. The NYT reports:
Joseph Kabila, 40, Congo’s president for the last 10 years, is incredibly unpopular in many parts of the country, especially the innumerable slums that dominate Kinshasa, the capital.But all signs point to him trying to hold onto power, at all costs.His soldiers have already killed several opposition supporters, including up to nine this weekend during an election-related fracas. United Nations officials and other election observers say Mr. Kabila’s men are stuffing ballot boxes, intimidating voters and bribing people to vote for the president…Corrupt politicians and businessmen permeate the highest levels of society. In every indicator measuring democracy and prosperity in countries around the world, Congo ranks at or near the bottom.
“Organize” is the wrong verb to describe the process of preparing this election. Many polling stations were deep in the countryside; election monitors reported some citizens walking for days to cast their vote. As the Guardian reports:
Some 35m ballot papers printed in South Africa and 186,000 ballot boxes made in China have to be distributed to 63,000 polling stations in a country two thirds the size of western Europe. There is minimal transport infrastructure, but they will do whatever it takes: using foreign helicopters, dugout canoes and boxes balanced on heads carried along bush paths.
The sheer waste of resources involved in shipping ballots by helicopter to people who can barely read for an election that will be rigged is a fascinating testimony to the power of ideology over reality in the do-gooding world of the international development bureaucracy, but an expensively fraudulent election is hardly the most costly or the most disastrous intervention that well-intentioned bureaucrats have imposed on Africa in sixty years of serially flawed “development” initiatives. But to believe that this process will lead to an effective democratic government in the DRC is as misguided though perhaps as touching as the belief of certain New Guinea tribes that by building fake landing strips and hangars they could lure more cargo rich airplanes out of the skies when the end of World War Two terminated Allied use of New Guinea as a transshipment route for the war effort. No doubt the “development professionals” and NGO staff earning high five and low six figure salaries feel competent and fulfilled as they bustle pointlessly about, shuffling and counting papers; no doubt that many a memo will be written and many a report produced by people who think they are accomplishing something; no doubt the New Guinea tribes thought hard about the best places to put the fake landing strips.
(One purpose of serious educational reform in the western world would be to reduce the number of professionally credentialed people who can’t tell the difference between pointless make-work and displacement activity on the one hand and on the other, actual progress on making the world a better place. Far too many college kids think that working for a “development” NGO is a way to change the world.)
Congo has had a bad time with the modern world. The despicable Belgian monarch King Leopold II ruled Congo as a personal fiefdom and inspired Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness; George Washington Williams, an African-American writer helped expose his grotesque misrule and force the king — who today would likely be indicted for crimes against humanity — to give up personal control of the colony. Things have not gotten all that much better in the last 100 years. The Belgians who succeeded Leopold misgoverned the country about as badly as any Europeans misgoverned anything in the 20th century. When they left, ethnic internal conflicts, the discovery of vast mineral wealth, and Cold War tensions produced some of the worst governments and bloodiest wars of the era. Of all the places where the US tolerated and even supported despotic, murderous, corrupt and incompetent rulers in the interests of containing Soviet influence, Congo perhaps had it worst. After the Cold War the eastern part of the country got caught up in the genocidal Hutu-Tutsi conflict; the chaotic power vacuum in mineral rich eastern Congo drew in mercenaries and arms from all over the region as various African governments sought control over strategic terrain or important mineral deposits.
The central government has never really run the whole country. Much of the country lacks access to basic services. In one of the more depressing illustrations of the unfulfilled dreams of modern Congo, in 2006 the country’s experimental nuclear reactor outside Kinshasa was “protected” by a rusting chain link fence filled with holes, an open front gate, a “security guard” clad in a tracksuit, and a single key giving access to a few bars of highly enriched uranium, two of which vanished in the 1970s.
Congo today is mostly devoid of hope for progress. Millions have died to keep this shambolic country going. Breaking it up along regional or ethnic lines would challenge the fragile unity of other African multi-ethnic states, perhaps plunging this part of the continent into wider conflict. But holding it together may just be a different route to the same destination.